Our students are not learning. But are our teachers teaching?
The good news is that most children are now enrolled in schools. The question is: why are our students not learning sufficiently? We must ask whether the teacher is teaching, and how well is she or he teaching? Our pedagogical practices require serious reassessment
Education at the school level has seen remarkable achievements in recent years. With the passage of the Right to Education Act in 2009 and the universalisation of elementary education, more children are successfully completing class 8. Enrolment trends from the Unified District Information on School Education suggest that the gap in enrolment rate between girls and boys has reduced. While there are no numbers to measure the functionality of basic infrastructure facilities, schools now have access to drinking water (87%), electricity connection (61%), and separate toilets for boys and girls (94%).
The good news is that most children are now enrolled in schools. Simultaneously, transition rates have improved and drop-out rates have gone down. The student attendance rate in 2017-18 was 73.4%. Though the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) has not furnished data for teacher attendance, a 2010 World Bank study reported that a teacher in Indian schools is absent every four days. The infrastructure seems to be in place. But despite an upward trend observed in the National Achievement Survey (NAS) 2017 and the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 suggesting improvement, learning outcomes of students remain poor. Why are our students not learning sufficiently? We have to pause here and ask: Is the teacher teaching? How well is she or he teaching? Our pedagogical practices require serious reassessment.
The draft National Education Policy (NEP) recognises that “the quality of training, recruitment, deployment, service conditions, and empowerment of teachers is not where it should be, and consequently the quality and motivation of teachers [is lacking]”. This has resulted in our failure to translate access to schooling into years of schooling. About a quarter of teachers across all schools are qualified only up to the higher secondary level. A study to assess subject matter knowledge of educators in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar found an alarming deficit.
Untrained teachers, irrespective of schools being adequately staffed, directly affect student performance. ASER and NAS results make it clear that this is not merely a learning crisis; the Indian school education system is going through a teaching crisis.
A Centre for Civil Society working paper concluded that teachers’ unions can steer the fate of education by incentivising teachers. But since increasing learning outcomes requires greater teacher accountability, it harms the interest of unions.
Certain small scale initiatives implemented with local commitment deserve a mention. The Delhi government’s emphasis on teachers’ professional development, and efforts made under the NITI Aayog’s Aspirational Districts programme, must be lauded. In Uttar Pradesh, Pratham trains government officials who, in turn, train teachers under the “graded learning programme”. DIKSHA, a digital platform, to train teachers and provide resources and assessment aids, proves that technology can play a bigger role.
The draft NEP acknowledges the dire need for a complete overhaul of the teaching profession. The recruitment process should be exclusively merit based. The draft NEP neatly supplements Teacher Eligibility Test scores with National Testing Agency scores as well as mock demonstration. A minimal four-year BEd degree requirement can bring a radical shift in quality given that a quarter of school teachers are not even graduates at present.
Next, the draft policy provides for a clear career progression of teachers. A comprehensive recruitment process should be followed up with mandatory certification every three years. A teachers’ outcomes appraisal, “NAS-for-teachers”, can diagnose the nature of teaching. Teachers’ professional development is a continuous process that has to be assessed to strengthen content, pedagogical knowledge and classroom practice.
Most importantly, apart from testing teacher knowledge, there should be a mechanism to close the feedback loop. Informing educators on what works in their classroom can improve instructional quality and nurture an environment that supports teachers. Further, the in-service training provision is grossly underutilised with only 13% teachers trained in 2015-16. MHRD should redefine teacher training, benchmark it to global standards, and adopt a national framework. The draft NEP calls for strengthening and equipping Block Institutes of Teacher Education and District Institutes of Education and Training to build knowledge networks.
Finally, MHRD should perform a Teachers’ Needs Assessment to understand teachers’ motivation. A study conducted in Andhra Pradesh found that incentivising teachers based on increase in students’ test scores led to improved learning outcomes (Muralidharan and Sundararaman, 2009). Performance bonuses are a productivity-enhancing measure and improve the effectiveness of human capital. The draft NEP rightly proposes to put in place an incentive structure with a promotion-and-salary ladder to mark achievements in the profession.
Quality of teaching is an amorphous and intangible concept. However, at some stage and in some form, it has to be diagnosed, studied and improved. We must now shift our focus from universal enrolment to universal learning. The sad truth is that if the child is left behind in early years, she tends to stay behind. Bridging this gap requires a productive revolution around the quality of teaching. Traditionally, our education system has been built on faith where the child is handed over to the teacher. Now we have to make our teachers cognisant of how to respond to such responsibility.
Shamika Ravi is research director, Brookings India and member, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Neelanjana Gupta is research assistant, Brookings India
The views expressed are personal